Highlighting the Key Elements to Competitiveness; Competitiveness. It's a Buzzword in Nations, Communities, and Companies All over the World as They Vie to Keep Their Piece of the Economic Pie and Carve out New Ones. DEBORAH DUNDAS Reports on a Recent Conference at Which Experts Offered Advice on How Northern Ireland Can Stay Competitive

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BUSINESS people and policy-makers from Northern Ireland heading down to the Competitiveness Forum conference at Bunratty, Co Mayo last week boarded a special charter flight to reach the event.

The conference took a look at just how competitive the island of Ireland is and can be in the broader world economy - and the speakers were from all over the world: the United States, Switzerland and Italy.

While the speakers looked at how the economy on a broad level can be made more competitive and at how sectors can achieve greater competitiveness, Short's plane makers in Belfast, owned by Canada's Bombardier, was held up as an example of how a firm can be competitive.

Michael Ryan, Bombardier's vice-president and general manager, was one of the key speakers.

One of the most important factors, he said, to getting competitive and staying that way is being able to roll with the punches and be flexible in an ever-changing economic world.

He pointed out how Bombardier has achieved that over the past 14 years or so - in the period 1989-1994 by putting in a new organization and a bottom-line oriented management philosophy, investing in modernizing the company, replacing old programmes with new, looking at quality management, and investing in training.

But plans, no matter how well-laid, have a way of being hit with things beyond a company's control.

Bombardier found that out when the collapse of Fokker in 1996 resulted in the loss of 1,000 jobs and 25 per cent of Bombardier's business.

That event ushered in a new era at Bombardier - from 1996 to 2001 - when they reacted, Ryan says, swiftly to restore their competitiveness, introduced Six Sigma to improve performance, and continued to invest in new plant, products and people. …